Skip to main content

Is it real coffee, or some Scandinavian Christmas potion?

The Ref
aka Hostile Hostages
(1994)

(SPOILERS) I tend to think it’s a mistake to offer up a Christmas-set movie that doesn’t evoke a Christmas glow, or even a glimmer, regardless of whether – as in this case – it reaches a place of reconciliation and forgiveness. Anything you care to look at spanning any degree of tones and genres – from Die Hard, to Bad Santa, to The War of the Roses to Gremlins – understands this, to a greater or lesser extent. The Ref, set as it is on Christmas Eve, rather manages to miss the Yule boat.

George: You wanna see Santa falling down everyone’s chimney?

Some might say that’s the point. But that means the setting becomes a turn off and the change in mood at its conclusion pointless. There’s a good idea here – from Richard LaGravenese, who scored with The Fisher King a couple of years earlier, and sister-in-law Marie Weiss – but Ted Demme and his No Cure for Cancer stand-up star Denis Leary fail to capitalise on it. I thought No Cure was hilarious at the time, boasting Leary and his unrepentant bad-boy act (obviously, he has since sold out to the max, although not as much as his fellow stand-up smoker Bill Hicks – he became Alex Jones, of course).

Connie: You call your patients wackos?
Gus: Yeah, they er, like it.

Like many a stand-up, Leary is rather straightjacketed by straight narrative comedy. It didn’t work for him in Demolition Man either. Sure, he’d get the hang of the performance well enough, but his bits here are mostly the least-interesting part of The Ref, particularly as it tries to make him the titular straight man, presiding over the feuding marital breakdown of Caroline (Judy Davis) and Lloyd (Kevin Spacey). You’re waiting for him to unleash on those deserving of opprobrium, but instead the structure hones in on a worm (Lloyd) turning on his mother (Glynis Johns, in toweringly obnoxious form).

Caroline: How can we both be in the marriage and I’m miserable and you’re content?
Lloyd: Luck?

Leary’s agreeable, but he needs to be more than that. Spacey and Davis, in contrast, are fire and brimstone, perfectly cast as a ferociously dyspeptic, dysfunctional couple. Davis is all wired brittleness. Spacey, never convincing when he’s going for softness, and that isn’t hindsight talking, can’t really persuade when they reach the makeup stage, but this kind of role, for the most part, is a tour-de-force of sour jibes, and he has a face made for disdain.

Lloyd: You know what I’m going to get you next Christmas? A big wooden cross.

I recall thinking the picture didn’t quite hit the mark when I first saw it, especially chafing as I also remember the preceding positive reviews. Of the “Why was this not a hit?” variety (and a Simpson and Bruckheimer movie at that; their first box office misfire in a decade). Revisiting it again, it has evident problems with its structure. Gus (Leary) kidnaps Caroline and Lloyd, fine. But then what? The annoyingly entrepreneurial son returns (Robert J Steinmiller), the in-laws pay a house call, and so everyone has to play dress up.

Gus: From now on, the only person who yells is me.

It’s less escalation than sidestepping. The hostage situation of Hostile Hostages – yes, its UK title – never arrives, and yet it seemed to be brewing with the subplot concerning Raymond J Barry’s police lieutenant (it’s a fairly middling one, culminating in a “I nailed your wife” jibe involving a wiped videotape).

So we settle on something out of a lesser Chevy Chase movie, as Carol presents a traditional Scandinavian dinner complete with ornate candle headgear. Plus, the conceit of Gus posing as their counsellor (BD Wong in the early scenes) is utilised for its maximum farce value.

George: You think you can take me? I’m Santa Claus!

On the casting front, Christine Baranski appears as Caroline’s sister in law, and JK Simmons makes his movie debut as the military school officer Jesse is blackmailing. Neighbour George (Bill Raymond) is a drunk Santa, but the kind of dunk Santa that gives Billy Bob Thornton’s a good name.

Gus: Your husband isn’t dead, lady. He’s hiding.

It seems test audiences didn’t much like an ending where Gus gives himself up in order to show Jesse a life of crime is nothing to aspire to, and execs instead had him escape with accomplice Murray (Richard Bright). Given that ending was shot January 1994, it might explain why The Ref didn’t garner a Christmas 1993 release. What it doesn’t explain is why Disney then dumped it in March. Who goes to see a Christmas movie in March? Apart from Ebenezer Scrooge, gloating?

Why not just hold it back nine months? Time was, the UK would get its US Christmas movies a whole year later, such were the vagaries of release schedules – and invariably straight to video at that. Of course, US tastes in Christmas have always been somewhat mysterious.

John: Maybe they’ll catch him and let him go, in the Spirit of Christmas.
Connie: That is not the spirit of Christmas. The spirit of Christmas is either you’re good or you’re busted and then you burn in hell.

Take Home Alone. Even giving families the benefit of the doubt and a lingering Yule sensation until MLK Weekend, it subsequently made another $80m by the time it dropped out of release in June! Gremlins was released in June. Die Hard in July. There’s no rhyme or reason. But even given such nuttiness, you just don’t release a movie set at Christmas ten weeks after. That’s plain crazy.


Popular posts from this blog

I’m smarter than a beaver.

Prey (2022) (SPOILERS) If nothing else, I have to respect Dan Trachtenberg’s cynical pragmatism. How do I not only get a project off the ground, but fast-tracked as well? I know, a woke Predator movie! Woke Disney won’t be able to resist! And so, it comes to pass. Luckily for Prey , it gets to bypass cinemas and so the same sorry fate of Lightyear . Less fortunately, it’s a patience-testing snook cocking at historicity (or at least, assumed historicity), in which a young, pint-sized Comanche girl who wishes to hunt and fish – and doubtless shoot to boot – with the big boys gets to take on a Predator and make mincemeat of him. Well, of course , she does. She’s a girl, innit?

Just because you are a character doesn't mean that you have character.

Pulp Fiction (1994) (SPOILERS) From a UK perspective, Pulp Fiction ’s success seemed like a fait accompli; Reservoir Dogs had gone beyond the mere cult item it was Stateside and impacted mainstream culture itself (hard to believe now that it was once banned on home video); it was a case of Tarantino filling a gap in the market no one knew was there until he drew attention to it (and which quickly became over-saturated with pale imitators subsequently). Where his debut was a grower, Pulp Fiction hit the ground running, an instant critical and commercial success (it won the Palme d’Or four months before its release), only made cooler by being robbed of the Best Picture Oscar by Forrest Gump . And unlike some famously-cited should-have-beens, Tarantino’s masterpiece really did deserve it.

I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger.

Last Action Hero (1993) (SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.

Death to Bill and Ted!

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) (SPOILERS) The game of how few sequels are actually better than the original is so well worn, it was old when Scream 2 made a major meta thing out of it (and it wasn’t). Bill & Ted Go to Hell , as Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey was originally called, is one such, not that Excellent Adventure is anything to be sneezed at, but this one’s more confident, even more playful, more assured and more smartly stupid. And in Peter Hewitt it has a director with a much more overt and fittingly cartoonish style than the amiably pedestrian Stephen Herrick. Evil Bill : First, we totally kill Bill and Ted. Evil Ted : Then we take over their lives. My recollection of the picture’s general consensus was that it surpassed the sleeper hit original, but Rotten Tomatoes’ review aggregator suggests a less universal response. And, while it didn’t rock any oceans at the box office, Bogus Journey and Point Break did quite nicely for Keanu Reev

If you ride like lightning, you're going to crash like thunder.

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) (SPOILERS) There’s something daringly perverse about the attempt to weave a serious-minded, generation-spanning saga from the hare-brained premise of The Place Beyond the Pines . When he learns he is a daddy, a fairground stunt biker turns bank robber in order to provide for his family. It’s the kind of “only-in-Hollywood” fantasy premise you might expect from a system that unleashed Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and Point Break on the world. But this is an indie-minded movie from the director of the acclaimed Blue Valentine ; it demands respect and earnest appraisal. Unfortunately it never recovers from the abject silliness of the set-up. The picture is littered with piecemeal characters and scenarios. There’s a hope that maybe the big themes will even out the rocky terrain but in the end it’s because of this overreaching ambition that the film ends up so undernourished. The inspiration for the movie

This entire edifice you see around you, built on jute.

Jeeves and Wooster 3.3: Cyril and the Broadway Musical  (aka Introduction on Broadway) Well, that’s a relief. After a couple of middling episodes, the third season bounces right back, and that's despite Bertie continuing his transatlantic trip. Clive Exton once again plunders  Carry On, Jeeves  but this time blends it with a tale from  The Inimitable Jeeves  for the brightest spots, as Cyril Basington-Basington (a sublimely drippy Nicholas Hewetson) pursues his stage career against Aunt Agatha's wishes.

Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on.

Paterson (2016) (SPOILERS) Spoiling a movie where nothing much happens is difficult, but I tend to put the tag on in a cautionary sense much of the time. Paterson is Jim Jarmusch at his most inert and ambient but also his most rewardingly meditative. Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver and modest poet living in Paterson, New Jersey, is a stoic in a fundamental sense, and if he has a character arc of any description, which he doesn’t really, it’s the realisation that is what he is. Jarmusch’s picture is absent major conflict or drama; the most significant episodes feature Paterson’s bus breaking down, the English bull terrier Marvin – whom Paterson doesn’t care for but girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) dotes on – destroying his book of poetry, and an altercation at the local bar involving a gun that turns out to be a water pistol. And Paterson takes it all in his stride, genial to the last, even the ruination of his most earnest, devoted work (the only disappoint

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) (SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron ’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison. Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War , Infinity Wars I & II , Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok . It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions ( Iron Man II ), but there are points in Age of Ultron whe

I think it’s pretty clear whose side the Lord’s on, Barrington.

Monte Carlo or Bust aka  Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969) (SPOILERS) Ken Annakin’s semi-sequel to Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines tends to be rather maligned, usually compared negatively to its more famous predecessor. Which makes me rather wonder if those expressing said opinion have ever taken the time to scrutinise them side by side. Or watch them back to back (which would be more sensible). Because Monte Carlo or Bust is by far the superior movie. Indeed, for all its imperfections and foibles (not least a performance from Tony Curtis requiring a taste for comic ham), I adore it. It’s probably the best wacky race movie there is, simply because each set of competitors, shamelessly exemplifying a different national stereotype (albeit there are two pairs of Brits, and a damsel in distress), are vibrant and cartoonish in the best sense. Albeit, it has to be admitted that, as far as said stereotypes go, Annakin’s home side win

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.